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Clinton, Obama Campaigns Spar Over Remarks

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, share a laugh in South Carolina. (AP)

By Perry Bacon Jr.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Continuing what has become an escalating fight between the two camps over black voters in South Carolina, billionaire mogul Bob Johnson, one of Sen. Hillary Clinton's most prominent African American supporters, mocked Sen. Barack Obama's hopeful rhetoric and suggested Obama was "doing something in the neighborhood" at a time when Clinton and her husband Bill were working on civil rights issues.

The remark came on a day when Clinton took on two of Obama's supposed strengths -- his initial opposition to the Iraq War and his appeal to black voters, who will comprise about half of the primary voters in South Carolina -- while the Obama campaign touted his endorsement from Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill as evidence of his appeal in Republican states.

"As an African American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues, when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood, that I won't say what he was doing in the neighborhood but he said it in his say these two people would denigrate the accomplishments of civil rights marchers," Johnson said at a town hall meeting in Columbia.

Johnson's remark, which drew a mix of applause (for the Clintons) and laughter (about Obama) from a mixed race crowd of more than 300, was quickly condemned by the Obama campaign, which issued a statement from former state representative "I.S." Leevy Johnson of Columbia, who was among the first three African Americans elected to the S.C. legislature after Reconstruction.

"It's offensive that Senator Clinton literally stood by and said nothing as another one of her campaign's top supporters launched a personal, divisive attack on Barack Obama," former representative Johnson said. "For someone who decries the politics of personal destruction, she should've immediately denounced these attacks on the spot."

In his 1995 book, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," Obama wrote that, during his late teens, "Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it." Clinton's team has generally distanced itself from those who bring up Obama's more than decade-old admission, even pushing out a campaign chair in New Hampshire who had suggested Obama's past drug use would be an issue for him.

Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman, said Johnson had made earlier remarks about how Obama was as a community organizer in Chicago neighborhoods while Clinton was active on civil rights issues in Arkansas.

"My comments today were referring to Barack Obama's time spent as a community organizer, and nothing else," Johnson clarified in a later statement. "Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect."

Carson said Clinton has ordered her staff not to engage in "negative, personal campaigning."

Earlier in the day, Clinton used an appearance on the "Meet the Press" to question Obama's initial opposition to the Iraq War and suggest his campaign was behind was behind the racial controversy that has brewed for the last few days.

"This is an unfortunate story line the Obama campaign has pushed very successfully," the former first lady said. ''I don't think this campaign is about gender, and I sure hope it's not about race."

But while she criticized Obama on a television show she filmed from Columbia, her tone in public appearances here was markedly different, particularly when she appeared at a black church service, where she declared herself "proud" of Obama.

Johnson, who spent the day campaigning with Clinton, also compared Obama's persona to that of the actor Sidney Poitier in the film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Johnson said Obama's "reasonable, likable," style wouldn't work for a president. "I'm thinking this is not a movie, Sidney," Johnson said. "I don't care how good a speaker he is."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 13, 2008; 6:24 PM ET
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